Materials Handling

Meet the forks in the supply chain

By Gian Schiava

September 2022

Lift trucks are everywhere

Where can lift trucks be found in the supply chain? Everywhere, says Gian Schiava, who follows a couple of products from field and sea to the dinner table to prove it.

We all are very aware of the diligent work that forklifts and warehouse trucks do to maintain a smooth flow in our warehouses. We tend to see their natural roles and habitats as movers of goods in storage and order picking areas, and stuffers of lorries in loading bays. Thinking a bit more deeply, we can also imagine them fetching and carrying parts in production sites to keep new products rolling off the line. However, today we want to show you a few perhaps lesser-known places where forklifts are vital in keeping things moving.

The best way to demonstrate how widely forklifts are deployed is to use an example we can all relate to. Let’s say tonight you want to prepare a nice salmon or tuna steak on the grill, accompanied by a glass of smooth-tasting wine. How many times have these products encountered lift truck forks before the fish meets your fork? Let’s take a stroll along the supply chain, starting at the very beginning.


Non-marking tyres are amongst the hygienic adaptations of forklifts in the food industry.

Forklifts in agriculture and fisheries

In various wine-producing regions around the world, the early part of the year’s workload is steady but manageable. Come harvest time, life becomes stressful as the ripe grapes have to be collected as soon as possible to preserve product quality.

Most vineyards use forklifts all year round, but in this crucial period they often enlarge their fleets temporarily with rental units. Besides having a rental fleet on standby, the most experienced forklift dealers will support vineyard businesses by tailoring forklifts to the application. This often means fitting them with special attachments, like rotating forks or clamps to unload the grapes into crush bins. Speed is everything at this time of year, so trucks have to provide both high performance and utter reliability.

Whilst the wine is maturing nicely in oak casks, the fish has to be caught too. The very largest vessels may process fish automatically. However, as you have opted for a more sustainable catch, a traditional fishing vessel will often unload it with the help of a forklift. The truck transports the fish into an auction area where it is bought by retailers and restaurants alike.


For wet and salty conditions in fisheries, lift truck components must be specified with extra protection.

Unloading fish is not much of an issue in terms of weight, as most modern electric forklifts can easily pick up 4 or 5 tonnes in one go. The bigger challenge by far within this application is the hostility of the environment itself, due to its wet and salty conditions. To survive in such exceptionally harsh conditions, a very tight maintenance plan is an absolute must. In addition, truck components must be specified with extra protection, or be replaced by stainless steel equivalents.

These adaptations also help to meet hygiene requirements. In the wider food industry, further hygiene measures may include use of food grade oil and non-marking tyres. Careful cleaning of lift trucks is, of course, essential. Amongst the most extreme food-related environments are those where substances like flour present an explosion hazard. Trucks can be adapted to avoid the risk of causing sparks.

Another issue is that fish (and other food products) may be stocked in cold store warehouses. This requires other modifications to the truck, especially when temperatures drop below -30°C. For example, special oil is used in the hydraulic system to keep all functions running smoothly. Naturally, these trucks are fitted with closed, heated cabins for the drivers, who also have to wear insulating clothes.


Compact pedestrian trucks are easy to manoeuvre inside trailers and in very small storage areas.

Forklifts in transport

As mentioned earlier, we are very aware of forklifts working in manufacturing and distribution sites. They are also heavily involved in getting the products into the transport process through their work in loading docks. But did you know that some lift trucks also accompany the goods on their journey?

Nice examples of this are truck-mounted forklifts, which are attached behind a lorry so that the driver has his or her own lift truck to for loading and unloading cargo. Not surprisingly, these may be rather big and relatively cost-intensive machines, but they more than justify that investment.

Other examples include very compact pallet trucks. For decades, drivers have been using hand pallet trucks, but these are certainly not effortless and may cause back injuries. Nowadays, many businesses have switched to powerful yet nimble electric versions. As well as improving comfort and health, they effortlessly move pallets of over a tonne, even on ramps. The type of pallet truck shown here has tiller arms that can also function in the upright position, with a creep speed function. This makes life easier for the driver when working within a cramped trailer. Their ease of use also often results in less damage to the goods.

Forklifts in retail environments

Amongst the subsequent links in the supply chain are the retailers. Today, large supermarkets and even convenience stores have storage facilities, but their space is very confined. Typical materials handling equipment encountered here includes the same pallet trucks as described above. These are particularly handy for stocking store shelves, but there are also highly compact electric forklifts or stackers which can be used in tiny little storage spaces.

Forklifts literally everywhere

Next time you do the grocery shopping for your family dinner, you will know that the produce has seen a myriad of materials handling equipment before reaching your shopping basket. Forklifts of many kinds, shapes and versions will have made your meal possible and will keep on doing so. Bon appetit!

Forklifts and warehouse equipment for all of the applications described here – and many more – can be found in the comprehensive Cat® Lift Trucks range. Visit